If we are lucky enough to have a garden, then we are custodians of a tiny slice of the earth and we have control over it ( “up to a point Lord Copper”, as Evelyn Waugh’s character would say.)
The garden has a flat surface, that is the figure on the deeds of the house but how we cover up that space is up to us.
The most negative thing we can do for wildlife is cover it in tarmac or concrete. Black tarmac absorbs heat and actually contributes to global warming.
We can cover it in stones quarried from hundreds of miles away and then drench it in herbicide to stop any passing seed germinating.
We could lay plastic turf over it, or lay wooden boards over it made from dead trees and put plastic furniture on it and heaters and barbecues to burn meat, or reconstituted vegan burgers, surrounded by solar lights from China that stop bats and moths from ever taking wing, all in the name of being in the great outdoors.
All of these options involve buying stuff and making the planet a worse place for wildlife and for us all.
Or we could think in three dimensions. We could think not just of the flat ground we own, but of the whole cubic space above it and how we could maximise that for as many different species as possible.
The simplest thing to start with, is to grow tall plants . Tall plants make use of the sky space to provide food for bees and butterflies, moths and birds. The tallest plants are trees and if you have space to grow real trees then you can make the biggest difference possible to wildlife. Low growing plants are much better than concrete, plastic or stones, but they only make a few inches of life. Tall flowers are beautiful hollyhocks, delphiniums, dahlias foxgloves; what ever flourishes in your climate and soil. Flowering shrubs are wonderful: lavender, lilac, rosemary again what ever the bees like and will tolerate your climate. If bees don’t come to it and you need pesticides to keep it happy, then ditch it. You are doing more harm than good by growing it in the wrong climate. There are always better things you could grow!
Think of the borders of your garden. Could they be alive? Could you have real hedge? Could it have a real mixture of local shrubs that provide berries and nuts in the autumn for birds or evergreen shelter in the winter? If you have a chain link fence, could you grow flowers up that fence? Is there a gap in the fence for hedgehogs or other wildlife to pass between gardens?
Rather than a plastic awning or sunshade, why not sit in the shade of a tree? It is far cooler and more lovely! Plant one now for your future or even that of your children!
A garden can go up as well as down. I decided a pond dug down into my little garden will make a space for frogs and dragonflies and maybe newts and damselflies too and this is my project for the spring.
The earth isn’t flat . Our gardens don’t need to be flat either and by thinking of filling every millimetre of the land we own and the space above it with life will make such a difference to the fragile planet.
It has taken a long time to turn cold here and real frosts have only just begun.
My pretty little acer tree has been flaming for weeks in the drizzle, but the real winter has extinguished it at last. I picked up the final fallen leaf from the ground like a still glowing ember.
The dahlias and gladioli are safely dug up and stored in the basement and the scented geraniums are bulging on the spare room window sill.
When cleaning between the pots, I spotted some tell tale black frass on the window sill. The tiny black spheres were the frass of a caterpillar that has smuggled its way into the warm of the house.
We managed to find it, well camouflaged amongst the munched green leaves and I am hoping it may grow into a hawk moth caterpillar of some description. Hawk moths caterpillars have wonderful markings and spikes on their tails. The adult moth could be a thing of astonishing beauty: a humming bird, eyed, or even an elephant’s head hawk moth; but dreams of gorgeously patterned moth wings are still months away.
Until then I have to wait with the lucky caterpillar, in the warm back room, for the seasons to slowly change.
In high summer, my moth trap is so full of wonders that I have to admit to feeling occasionally overwhelmed by the job of identifying and recording them all.
As summer wanes, the moths that appear in the trap change in name and in number and by the end of autumn I am lucky to find a single one on the outside of the trap, or hiding on the egg boxes inside.
The season is over.
Before I put the trap in the garden shed I plugged it in one last time and wonderfully there was a new species sat on the lid waiting for me in the cold morning.
He was a mottled umber and I can confidently assign him a gendre as the females of this species are wingless and very different. He was jeweled with dew on his “ fur” and the zig zag markings were sharp and clear.
Here are a few more new species that I have identified in the garden this year (often with the invaluable help of the county moth recorder)
Obviously these are not to scale. The large wainscot is not that large! The small yellow wave was quite small and it seemed a good way to wave goodbye to the season.
I hope you have enjoyed meeting a few of my new finds!
The weather has finally turned cool and I have brought the last ones in to dry on top of the wood burning stove.
What I cannot share with you is their wonderful and unexpected scent of vanilla! After being toasted on the stove, the remaining sugars release a real smell of caramel and I can understand where the idea of chili chocolate must have come from. Cooked, they are pungent and spicy enough to make your eyes sting, but before cooking they are innocently sweet.
I like growing chilies because you have to start them so early on the window sill in spring. When the weather is still drear out side but my fingers are itching to start gardening again, they germinate faithfully in their trays and the sturdy little green plants grow slowly but surely until it is frost free and safe to plant them out. They need a good summer to flower and for the seed pods to ripen, but I have only had one disastrous year and generally they do very well in our warming world.
Chopped and stored in a jar, they will heat curries and many other dishes in the drear time before I can plant some seeds again!
As is to be expected in autumn, the weather flip flops faster than Liz Truss between sunshine and storms. However, unlike a politician, the flowers make beauty in the sun and provide food for the late insects as long as they can. My rosemary is covered in flowers and bees and the white michaelmas daisies are loud with life.
However it is the cosmos that are the most eye catching of all in their colourful, striking simplicity. Looking into their flowers with my phone camera I am reminded of my A- level Biology. Male and female are represented in the same glorious bloom and pollen is both shed and received as time turns the petals from perky to limp. I apologize for the “Carry On” style allusions, but watching ancient comedy films and observing the garden are increasingly important to my sanity these days!
I also found this worrying looking female spider just outside the garden yesterday. While I normally embrace all wildlife, I have to admit that this one made me shudder utterly.
This article has really set me thinking again about my own flat garage roof, which could be home to more wild life. The bus shelter roof idea is really taking off and this is the way to go across the world !
This tiny perfect sliver of life was under the bucket. At first it was coiled like a bracelet in a golden knot, but by the time the photo was taken it was warm and lithe, sliding over my fingers. The sight of one slow worm used to be astounding in our garden ten years ago, but as the garden has grown up and the wild spots and compost heaps have been cultivated, they are increasingly common.
It is heartening to think we must have done one small thing right in our little corner to visibly increase this bit of wildlife.
By the way my hands are not usually so dirty, but they are currently stained from picking up walnuts without any gloves on!
After the heat of summer and the seemingly endless shout of sunshine, the turning of the season into autumn is a huge relief. Mornings are foggy, fires have been lit and smoke rises up to the stars, that glitter on into the dark of morning.
The cat is reluctant to venture out . He hates wet dew on his paws, but eventually the sun creeps up, the world wakes and slowly he slinks out to start the autumn day.
The great clouds of martins and swallows have thinned to just a few birds catching up on the reverse migration back to Africa. The starlings have remembered the uncollected apples in the orchard behind the house and are wheezing their anticipation of a feast. Jays have appeared and are raucous in the tall trees.
Days of rain are forecast, but today the sun has climbed into a peerlessly clear sky and the michaelmas daisies are star burst bright with bees. A hornet patrols ceaselessly looking for a bee to catch and the late gate keeper butterfly keeps far away from it. Hummingbird hawk moths feed on September nectar and the morning glory winds up and up to the end of every stick.
The news of Russian mobilization of reluctant and unreluctant men is chilling I think of the unharvested vegetables ripening in the gardens of destroyed Ukrainian homes.
On a warm September day it seems the very best of times, but Dickens could always balance his opening sentences to linger in the mind.
People are a huge part of the ecosystem in which we live and good news about health is so often smoothered in all the bad news. So here is a fantastic good news story from Africa . Something to really enjoy!
This dragon fly laid her eggs on a mossy stone . I always assumed they deposited their eggs into water and if anything should know the difference between stone and water, then a dragonfly should. She choose the stone. Maybe their life cycle is more complex than I imagine. I could look it up. I could read about it in books and on line, or I could just watch and wonder. Sometimes that is all I want to do: just watch and wonder.
It rained and hailed this week. The pot of basil was shredded, but the broken leaves were preserved in a bed of hail under the stalks. They were cooked in spaghetti bolognese for dinner.
The first migrating warblers are turning up in the garden, feeding for a while on their way home to Africa.
After the rain, the heavy phone cables strung across the road,glittered with rain drops sliding along the cable like iridescent jewels on a dowager duchess’s necklace.
I swear I could hear the soil absorbing the sweet rain and the cracks healing.
It has been so sunny here that the light is positively Mediterranean and so bright, that sometimes one longs for the night.
I haven’t been posting much, as the endlessly dry nights have meant non stop mothing and then hours identifying and recording what has appeared. This is a delight for me, but it is also time consuming, so I am sharing a few delights from the last few days by way of a blog. There have been plenty of smaller and less brightly coloured moths in the trap, but I am sparing you some of my obsession!
The mornings are cool and dry and the warm pine trees smell like Greece. Cans of water are lugged to the vegetables and the roses sulk at not getting their fair share.
The fly door slams.
More tea is taken out to the shade. The butterflies wake up and the buddleia draws them in with heady perfume and endless nectar. The lazy flap of a fritillary butterfly speeds up as it swerves a predatory hornet.
The cat climbs onto the roof of the shed to survey her domain.
A pink petunia flower is caught in the net of a spider and pirouettes in the breeze. It continues to dance and turn when the wind drops and high above, a spider laboriously cuts the flower free of the threads and the pink skirts swirls slowly down to the ground.
The breeze returns and the wind chimes ripple . No one shouts, no mowers, blowers or saws disturb the summer air.
It has been brutally hot and it is going to get worse, so while we wait and pray for our leaders to wake up to the reality of climate change, what can we do personally to stay cool?
1. Wear light clothes. Loose cotton dresses are much cooler than shorts as the air can move around your waist. Men look great in kaftans, which are what men wear in the hottest countries, for good reason!
3. Get up EARLY when it is cool and open every window to get the cool morning air in. Use a room fan to blow cool air into the room from the window. Warm air rises, so open any window that you can up high and suck cool air in from the basement or lower rooms. As soon as the temperature outside is warmer than inside, close and shutter to keep the cooled air in.
2. Close your windows and keep your shutters or curtains closed, when the sun is out. Open the windows only when the temperature outside is cooler than inside. Buy a little indoor outdoor thermometer to check.
4. Don’t put the oven on! Don’t cook anything that needs a long time. When you have cooked put the hot pan outside to stop it heating up the kitchen. Couscous is brilliant, as it needs just a small kettle of boiling water to cook it and left over couscous is great spiced up and eaten cold.
5. The simplest way to get cool is to wet your arms and face and sit in front of the fan. Soaking a t-shirt, wringing it out and then wearing it will keep you cool for ages. Wetted top sheet will help you sleep if it is really bad. Sitting with your feet in a basin of cold water helps swollen ankles .
5. Air conditioning is the obvious choice for many, but it eats electricity and that drives the problems that make the world hotter, so if you can: avoid.
Long term cooling solutions involve planting many many more shady trees . Trees can drop the temperature by 10 degrees and are of course beautiful. Painting roofs white make a big difference and not laying black tarmac everywhere makes urban areas more liveable. Fountains that people can splash in and walk through are wonderful.
Homes and offices need to lose all that glass that makes living in them literally like living in a green house. The fashion for endless glass is insane. Every new home I see with huge glass windows, has to quickly spend a fortune on blinds and curtains that are never never opened. A wall, is much cooler!!
A) a bottle of water left over night in the freezer and then sat in your lap.
B) a gel neck scarf. The gel swells up in water over night and then cools your neck all day as you wear it. It isn’t wet on the skin, you can get all sorts of attractive patterns and it is definitely the best cheap cooling device.
C) a snap towel. I don’t know how these little towels work, but they certainly do. You wet the little towel a bit, shake it to make it snap and put it on your head or neck – very cool!
D) a neck fan. This is my latest acquisition. It looks like a pair of hipster ear phones around your neck. It charges with a usb lead and works for hours blowing air round your face. It is very light and brilliant when you are moving around.
High temperatures generally mean a lack of rain and water shortages. To keep your plants alive, reuse your washing water!!
Bowls of water, that have washed dishes or hands, can be collected in a pail and used to water everything. Plants do not mind a bit of detergent/soap – in fact they love it!
Collecting shower water is difficult, but bath water is easy to collect if your bathroom is upstairs. Every evening, after a bath , I lower a pump connected to a hose pipe into the bath and pump the water straight out onto the vegetable patch or into a water butt for use later. I use bubble bath and the veg are fine! You need one person to keep an eye on the pump upstairs to turn off the electricity when the bath is empty.
I am sure many of you know all of these tricks, but this blog might just contain a new idea to keep you cool and keep your garden blooming in the dry and the heat.
This month has roared by. The start was so beautiful it took my breath away .
Peonies and sweet peas, rose gardens laden with perfume and delphiniums the colours of Greek seas.
Mornings absolutely crammed with astounding moths and then such heat that we had to close the shutters and imagine there was no outside and read scratchy novels inside.
Then the storms cleared the polluted air and we cracked open the windows again. Suddenly the lawn was fissured and brown, the peonies were long gone and the roses were fried, but the everlasting Sweetpea explosively scrambling over everything. The red currants and gooseberries were ripe to falling and the little fig tree, I was sure had died, put out green leaves.
The month isn’t over . The rain has revived so much, and June flames on !
One of the reasons I like moths are their names. The names are redolent of Victorian parsonages , where I imagine bewhiskered vicars pouring over newly caught specimens and allowing themselves a rare flight of fancy, as they coin a name for their new find.
The practice still continues. A recently named moth is a type of rustic moth is called Clancy’s Rustic after Mr Clancy, who first identified it in Britain . I caught this moth in my light trap in France last year and was impressed by the gold outline of the diagnostic kidney mark on its wing.
Other moths also have wonderfully distinctive names. My current favourites are the Uncertain and the Red- necked footman. The pinky freckled moth is rather romantically called the Maiden’s Blush and the flashy spotted moth is a Scarlet Tiger. There is a dark Grey Dagger, an Old Lady , a Gypsy Moth, an Elephant Hawk moth and a Silver Cloud, to name but a few.
It is too hot to go out today so I think I will concoct a story involving an old lady with a grey dagger who fools the red necked footman into allowing the uncertain, blushing maiden to meet the scarlet tiger, before disappearing on a silver cloud pursued by a random elephant riding a huge hawk.
I think that I might have been out in the sun too much – roll on the night!
We once rented part of a very old bake house that belonged to Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire. We were responsible for a dank patch of grass next to the village pond. In the first no mow spring, early purple orchids came up.
We moved to Wales and eventually put down a deposit on a bungalow on the edge of a venerable town. Masses of ox- eye daisies came up along with red campion and dandelions . We were not yet brave enough to let them all grow, but soon learnt that you could mow paths through your “meadow” and this semblance of order kept the neighbours happy.
In the tropical countries in which we subsequently lived, lawns were rare and generally composed of tough mat grasses that had never been meadowlands, but not cutting the grass still allowed bigger ant hills to flourish and ant loving birds to feed.
In France we bought a flat slab of lawn surrounded by low maintenance evergreens and chicken wire. Our cat was deeply unimpressed, as there was no where to hide and absolutely no life to hunt. We agreed with him and took to diligent neglect or re-wilding, as it is more fashionably called.
Birch trees, ash, dogwood, spindle and wild privet self seeded and in a corner we let them all grow. In the grass; hawks bit, eye bright, ladies smock, bugle, daisies and dandelions, sedges and plantains, fox and cubs, primroses and cowslips, teasels, evening primroses and mulleins appeared in their seasons. We collected local wild seeds and threw them in for good measure. The ox eye daisies and the hay rattle never took, like wise the foxgloves, but then it all depends of what type of soil you have and when you eventually do cut the grass.
If you never cut the grass, then bushes and finally trees will take over. We allowed this happen in a part of the garden and now that part is full of nesting birds and mice and hedgehogs. The cats now have so many places to hunt, sun and to hide that they are happy to stay safe in our garden away from the traffic and the thundering computer driven tractors.
There is no down side to not mowing your lawn. You have more time to enjoy your garden, the garden is infinitely quieter and the difference to the amount of life that will live with you in your garden, is absolutely staggering .
No Mow May, No Mow June and a bit of mowing if you don’t want a forest glade. What could be easier!???
The wild columbines in my garden are in their full glory.
I collected a few handfuls of seeds from plants in the forest on the ridge between my village and the border with Switzerland, some years ago. I chose a variety of colours, but they are all on the wild pallet of purple and pink.
Over the years they have self seeded in the shady parts of the garden and the variety of colours is amazing. Every year I try and photograph them and am always dissatisfied with the result. The flowers are down ward pointing and it seems impossible to capture their beauty and delicacy.
Some of the flowers have double and triple whorls of petals and I think their variation would have inspired Gregor Mendel to unlock the secrets of genetic variation in his famous monastic garden.
All types of bees visit the flowers . Here is a fat carpenter bee looking for nectar.
The bumble bees bite into the spurs of the flowers to reach the nectar faster and the next bees use the easy access too. You can see the bite holes in this picture.
The name columbine come from the Latin for dove and the shy down turned flower is supposed to look like a ring of doves’ heads.
Like all of the most beautiful things in life, they are transient. The warm weather will see them pollinated quickly and soon the patio will be painted with the bright confetti of their multicoloured, fallen petals.